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Change the way City Hall operates by revising our form of government.

November 30, 2018

Following the Nov. 6 charter amendments election, one thing was made perfectly clear: Voters expect the City Council to show leadership and take concrete steps to act upon the message they sent us with their vote.

The biggest message, by far, was their rejection of City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s oversized pay and influence. Over the years, there has been a progressive consolidation of power by an unaccountable bureaucracy at the expense of elected officials.

Whether by power grab or by council abdication of their responsibilities, the city manager has become too powerful. Voters have long recognized this, and on Nov. 6, they finally had their chance to say, “enough!”

To this day, Sculley refers to the City Council as a “board of directors.” Indeed, that was the model instituted in our 1950s-era city charter, when seats on the City Council were reserved for a few wealthy businessmen who drove downtown once a week for a council meeting and were paid $20 for their time.

Today, service on the City Council is a full-time job, something voters recognized a few years ago when they gave us full-time salaries and extended term limits in an effort to draw down the power of the city bureaucracy, which had long benefitted from a quick rotation of council members. Now that we’re full-time leaders, with a full-time salary, it’s time for City Council to step up, lead and be more than policy thinkers who dream the idea and step away.

The path forward is to honor the voters by decreasing the power and pay of the city manager and begin changing the way City Hall fundamentally operates by revising our form of government. This will not be easy, but it is necessary. It will be a challenging and time-consuming task that will reveal who we will be as a community for the next century. It will be our most defining project in decades, and we must, at the very least, begin the discussion.

City Manager Sculley has had success. Her tenure professionalized the city operation and when our council members were part-timers, she steadied the waters. But over time, the consolidation of all the power and pay has become untenable, not only to voters, but to the future prospects of this fast-growing city. The status quo just won’t cut it anymore.

City Councils, many of them, let it happen. And in recent years, we have seen decisions that failed our community. Case in point, the decision to sue our first responders in 2014 was made by the city manager. And it had devastating effects. Five court defeats, $1.5 million in wasted legal fees and a destroyed relationship between City Hall and first responders. The stubborn need to win at all costs is a monumental failure in leadership from the city manager. It could have been avoided. Would we have seen these charter amendments and years of infighting with police and fire, that has spilled into our citywide governance, if city leaders would have just shown humility and partnership in negotiations?

It’s time for change. We need to begin to rethink the role of a city manager. We can be thankful for the good Sheryl Sculley has done the past 13 years and still recognize that the dynamics have changed. The voters have given us a mandate. They don’t want overpaid, all powerful, unelected bureaucrats running this city. We need to honor their vote and look to the future. The voters of San Antonio have shown they are not afraid of change. As their elected representatives at City Hall, we shouldn’t be either.

San Antonio City Councilman Greg Brockhouse represents District 6.

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